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The Death Penalty Debate

God's Kings and Priests

Executions: Who Throws the Switch?

In this discussion of Capital Punishment, we are asking this question:

Is it Now God's Prescriptive Will
for One or More Men
to Shed Another Man's Blood
for Capital Crimes?

The first issue raised in this question concerned the question of Discerning God's Will for our lives. God's will for our lives is God's Law, or "Theonomy." Theonomy is concerned with the application of God's Word in the whole Bible, but especially the neglected Old Testament, and with the application of God's Word to every area of our lives, not just "religious" areas. Theonomists are thus concerned with Old Testament laws prescribing death for certain criminals, as well as the Old Testament view of the State. The second issue broached by the question above is very much related to the first issue.

Q.2: Who it is that was charged with executing a man convicted of a capital crime?
a. The State?
b. The Church?
c. The Family?
Let us survey the Scriptures to gain just a brief understanding of the complexity of this normally over-simplified issue.

Adam in the Garden

Q.3: What "institutions" were present in the Garden of Eden?
a. Was there a "State" in the Garden?
b. Was there a "Church" (i.e., an ecclesiastical organization)?
Q.4: Even after the Fall, was there a State or Church?
It would appear that there was only the Family. If anyone was to execute anyone during the period from Adam to Moses, it would have to be someone in the Family. Dr. B. M. Palmer, who, both before and after he declined an invitation to the chair of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Seminary, exercised one of the most noteworthy pastoral ministries in the United States during the last century, has noted that the powers of "government" were exercised by the Family:
The long interval, therefore, of two thousand years, from the creation to the deluge, has been well termed the dispensational period of the Family; since this was the only form under which government is known to have been administered.
(The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects, 1876, pp. 200-201)

Q.5: What does the account of Cain tell us about Capital Punishment?

A.5: Two important things: First, that the Family had the power to execute; the power was not limited to "the State." God had to make special arrangements to keep Cain alive.[5]
But why keep a murderer alive? This is the second important fact revealed in the account. Cain formed the first State, which was the necessary instrument which would lead to our salvation through the execution of Christ.[6]

Noah after the Flood

Probably a central text in the Death Penalty Debate is Genesis 9:5,6. The commentators exhibit great confusion on this passage. We are told that God here institutes capital punishment, yet it existed at the time of Cain.[7] We are told that by instituting capital punishment God thereby instituted the State, yet nothing is here said of a "State." Genesis 9:5,6 gives the power of capital punishment "unto Noah and his sons," (Genesis 9:1,8). This power was not delegated to a "State" (there was none) but remained with the Family. If there was a State in Noah's day it most assuredly did not survive the Flood! Greg Bahnsen has admitted that at the time of Noah the power to shed a man's blood was vested in the Family (not a "State").

Similarly, throughout the time of the Patriarchs, the Family rightly held the power to shed a man's blood according to God's Law.

Did anything change at the time of Moses?

Moses, the Church, and the State

Q.6: Does the patriarchal power of capital punishment find its termination at Mount Sinai?
The New Testament shows that the government of the Apostolic Church was based on "elders," or presbyters.[8] This system began in the Old Testament.

We have argued in our Study on Patriarchy that the Mosaic system of government - divinely-appointed elders (Exodus 18, Deuteronomy 1) and the Levitical system which was inaugurated by the angels through Moses (Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:53; Hebrews 2:2) - was not the inauguration of "the State," but rather of the Institutional "Church." We cannot repeat those arguments here; we would simply ask

Q.6a: Why one would assert that the system of Mosaic elders constitutes a "State" rather than a "Church?"

Q.6b. Is it only because the power of death was executed and anyone who executes someone else is ipso facto the "State" and not the "Church?" What is the Scriptural basis for such an assumption? Did not the Apostles wield a power of death over those who lied to the Spirit (Acts 5:36-37) and over those who oppressed the poor (I Corinthians 11:21,29-34)?

Some maintain that the "church" cannot wield "the sword," only the "State" can. What is meant by this assertion? Consider this dialogue I had with Greg L. Bahnsen, author of Theonomy in Christian Ethics:[9]
KC: Why was the shedding of blood prohibited to the church?
GLB: Because Paul says the weapons of our warfare are not carnal.
KC: Is this "warfare" we're talking about?
GLB: Yeah. We don't have anything but the Sword of the Spirit in the church. We don't impose physical punishment on people.
Slogan-busters: There is confusion here in the use of the word "sword" which hangs (as is often the case) on a faulty understanding of Romans 13. In our paper on Romans 13 we argued a parallel between Romans 13 and Isaiah 13. In Isaiah the word "sword" usually refers to war. In fact, take some time now to see if you can find any uses of the "sword" to refer to the shedding of blood in response to sin (in the manner we usually refer to as "capital punishment"). "Sword" almost always denotes war. In other words, Paul is saying[10] that we don't accomplish evangelism by nuking the pagans (to use a modern analogy). Paul is saying the State unwittingly executes God's historical judgments, often by declaring war on an evil people.

Failure to understand "sword" leads to a confusion between the State and the "church."[11] We need to examine this notion of "Separation of Church and State."


5. The power of the Family to shed blood is discussed further in Appendix A.  [Back to Text]

6. The formation of the State by Cain and its role in history is analysed further in Appendix B.  [Back to Text]

7. See Appendix A.  [Back to Text]

8. I Corinthians 6 indicates that the authority of this "royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:9) extends to "civil" areas.  [Back to Text]

9. I was listening to Rush Limbaugh the other day and was shocked at what happens when conservatives defend the State against Libertarians or anarchists. Slogans and buzz-words flow like a river, none of which are critically analyzed. I include transcriptions of these taped dialogues because they illustrate how thoroughly saturated we all are with traditional views, which need to be more rigorously examined.  [Back to Text]

10. or, more accurately, "might be quoted in support of an argument that...."  [Back to Text]

11. Here is a relevant thesis from our "95 Theses on the State":

"Sword" (cf. Romans 13:4) does not refer to individual penal sanctions (e.g., "capital punishment"). The shedding of a criminal's blood (Genesis 9:4-6) performed the functions of other ritual acts of bloodshed, prefiguring the atonement for sin secured by Christ's blood in His execution (Numbers 35:31,33; Deuteronomy 21:1,9). "The Sword" refers to war, i.e., national "capital punishment" (i.e., a shedding of blood), which is the sacrifice of a sinful people who will not accept the Lord's sacrifice and righteousness by faith. The sword of vengeance, which belongs to God, is the warfare whereby God slaughters a disobedient people in a fiery sacrifice (Deuteronomy 32:43 [NIV]; Isaiah 34:5-8; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 39:17-20; Zephaniah 1:7-8), relegating these idolatrous self-sacrifices and their dreams of Empire to the "dung-heaps" of history (Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 16:27; Zephaniah 1:17-18).
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